WHO and WTO: Essential Medicines as a Human Right

Even though some days it already feels like winter, the beautiful colors of autumn leaves remind us that the exciting spirit of fall is still among us: as old and new friends come back from distant lands and enlightening (or pencil-pushing) internships, and classes have just begun. In few places is this spirit more alive than at the Buffet Institute, where the Faculty and Fellows Colloquium Series has just begun! There is something special about an event that can gather undergraduate students, graduate students, professors and alumni alike under one roof, all at different stages in their careers but with a shared passion for global studies and a desire to continue learning. This initiative was created to share the research of the amazing faculty and fellows at Northwestern in the hope that the conversations and discussions starting here continue outside the Institute and lead to future interdisciplinary collaborations.

graphic-Pedraza-FariñaLaura_v2015-06-25The first lecture of the Faculty and Fellows Series was led by Laura Pedraza-Fariña, Assistant Professor of Law and Affiliate of the Science in Human Culture Program at Northwestern. She lectured on the relationship between the World Health Organization (WHO) and World Trade Organization (WTO) regarding access to essential medicines. For my generation, the WHO has been a major player in global health — a source of health information and statistics, an advocate for universal healthcare and a provider of aid during health crises around the world. I had never thought of the WTO as playing a role in global health. The WTO’s main functions include regulating the global rules of trade between nations and ensuring trade flows as freely as possible. The different missions of the WHO and WTO clashed in regard to patent protection and trade agreements of pharmaceutical medicine and medical technology, leading to a relationship of isolation — and at times competition — that has recently moved to one of collaboration in this overlapping regulatory space.

The conflict between the WHO and WTO, Pedraza-Fariña argues, arose from their different ways of framing and understanding problems, such as access to essential medicines. The human rights framework, so prevalent in global health discourse today, was not always the dominant narrative. Twenty years ago, the WTO managed all international intellectual property, including access to pharmaceutical medicines, according to the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement. Adrien Otten of the WTO said regarding TRIPS, that “open trade brings with it higher standards of living,” while the Essential Medicines branch of the WHO replied that “trade agreements may limit access to poorest countries to essential medicines.” Then, the AIDS crisis reformed the way the world viewed access to medicine. Life-saving treatment, however costly (such as antiretroviral therapy), began to be viewed as a human right and not a privilege of the few, leading to action to make the treatment more accessible to all.

By 2013, the WHO had won the upper hand in this struggle for universal access to medicine, with the WTO losing legitimacy ever since. In an article co-authored by the WTO and WHO, one of the main missions of the collaboration included “ensuring access to essential medicine constitutes a core human right obligation of the states.” Of course, the question must be asked: What constitutes an essential medicine? And furthermore, if a country is unable to pay for essential medicine, whose responsibility is it to provide the necessary aid?

After the presentation, the audience participated in a discussion on the lecture material. The exchange of ideas, opinions and perspectives following the lecture is another example of the uniquely rich and interdisciplinary education that Northwestern has to offer — and of course, free lunch never hurts. As a “global health nerd,” I have greatly enjoyed attending and participating in these discussions and plan on continuing to do so in the future.

The Buffet Institute Faculty and Fellows Colloquium Series takes place every Friday from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. at the Buffet Institute on the corner of Emerson and Sheridan.


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